Sprawled across the bed in trousers, a long sleeved shirt and my shiny leather shoes I could already feel the sweat pooling in the nape of my neck.
“It’s too hot for church,” I moaned at the ceiling, “They won’t even have fans because the electricity is broken and it will go on for hours.”
“This house is an oven,” Georgie reasoned with me, “It might be cooler in the church,”
“Yeah, right, in a stuffy tin shack with a hundred other sweaty people giving us Ebola,” I grumbled, but Georgie had already stalked off, muttering about her life choices. I tied my shoelaces in a huff, rolled down the tops of my socks and pretended to feel cooler.
And so it was, with spirits soaring, we folded ourselves into the university’s tiny bus and trundled across to Yoni, plashing through the newly flooded road past people busily enjoying their Sunday mornings not attending mass, all bustling to the markets with loaded baskets atop their heads or enjoying the sparkling freshly-washed sunshine that glittered off the dripping roadside foliage. We arrived at Yoni in time for Father Joe to parade us around the building to bless the new chapel before Lawyer Jalloh officially cut the green white and blue ribbon and ushered us all inside.
In many ways it was difficult, at first, to discern exactly what work had occurred to transform this simple tin and concrete former-canteen into the apparently holy dwelling we were now filing into: True enough, the plastic garden chairs had been rearranged into lines and the one remaining table was now covered in a smart table cloth topped with tiny votive candles, but in all other senses it still appeared, by and large, to be the same sparse concrete hut that we had previously known. Nevertheless there was a real sense of occasion as we took our seats and Father Joe welcomed us all in. Once seated, the joyful singing, clapping, dancing and abundant smiling faces soon served to underline the Father’s Pentecostal message that to be Christian was not to be boring but to have fire in the belly. He spoke at length of the strength his faith had given him – how important it was to him to have this belief in a country where fear so often rules – fear of demons, fear of witchcraft, fear of community reprisals. He spoke of the difficulty in doing the right thing and having the courage to be honest and make a change in a country which didn’t always value such traits. And he spoke with uncommon humility of his own failings and struggles.
I like Father Joe very much. He is an inspiring leader, a man with a belief in something better, an idealist and dreamer in a nation that struggles to look beyond the next week. He’s also a pragmatist who nevertheless works tirelessly to convert doubters to his vision of a ‘society of love’. He is excited by Georgie’s work and when I recently heard him speak at senate I was struck by the passion with which he spoke about improving the university for the good of the students. He is the university’s vice chancellor, a smiling good natured man of fierce intellect who trots hurriedly between meetings with a wave and hello to all those he passes.
He was joined behind the altar by Father Ben, a stout square jawed man with small twinkling eyes in a big face, a broad and fierce countenance that occasionally can be persuaded to collapse into a wicked grin. Despite a burgeoning paunch Father Ben is an upright and solidly built man with a cocky bearing and biceps that threaten to burst the sleeves of the white cassock he’s squeezed into. He’s a serious and formidable man who intimidates me somewhat, right up until the moment – about an hour from now – when he will boogie sideways towards us, beer in hand, and encourage Georgie and I with a wave to join him in the impromptu conga line he leads. Father Ben is the university’s head of finance and takes his role seriously. He’s a man of integrity and action, a solid manager entrusted with delivering Father Joe’s dreams. I like him because more than once he has come to Georgie’s aid in an hour of need – has been at the end of the phone to provide (and actively rally) support (more on that another time) or has bent over backwards at late notice to lend transport when the project car has been sick.
Right now, as pastor of this new chapel, he is sitting with a mischievous and inscrutable grin as the students (clearly at his bidding) extract a ‘tariff’ from prominent members of the congregation before they will unveil the gift they have donated to the chapel. This is carried out with various degrees of theatrical outrage, pocket-patting, cat calling and general hilarity amongst the congregation.
“If you feel the spirit move you,” Father Ben entreats with a “who, me?” expression of honesty, “You will pay!”
“You’ll have to accept a pledge from me,” Father Joe quips back, patting his cassock, before Lawyer Jalloh steps in with a wedge of cash, “The spirit moves me to pay the Father’s pledge!” he announces grandly, and then, “I’ll collect it from you later, Joe….”
Once the registrar, provost, lawyers, lecturers and key admin personnel have been shaken down the rest of the congregation are also invited to purchase pins of coloured ribbon for a friend before the grand unveiling of the gift. This works out to be the third collection during the course of the service. Georgie and I purchase pins for each other and whilst we are pinning them to each other’s lapels I notice something brush against me and without my noticing someone else has attached a pin to my collar. Looking around with a puzzled glance I see my colleague, Moses, sitting a few rows behind us waving. I’m strangely touched by the gesture, and I jump up and buy him a pin, too, to return the favour. Once all the pins are sold (and after only a small amount of heckling) the covers are whipped off the mysterious parcel in front of the altar to reveal a pile of prayer books and a clock donated by the student body. There is much applause.
The choir perform a further song and dance routine (with a weird vibe as though the Black Eyed Peas were singing ‘My Humps’ to God) before we are all invited to retire for refreshments.
“Light refreshments” Father Ben emphasises.
Two parallel rows of desks and chairs face each other along the length of the covered walkway between classrooms on the Yoni campus where we now congregate. We take our seats and are handed little parcels of food and bottles of beer. This is a step up from the orange squash and rich tea biscuits I remember from back home. Eternal salvation is certainly something but this feels like real value for our offering. Naturally, this being a Sierra Leonean gathering, there are also a stack of gigantic black speakers looming over us like the megalith in 2001 and it is not long before the campus is echoing to the rhythm of the song of the moment-
To di beat, to di beat, to di beat…..to di beat, to di beat, to di beat……..
Within seconds Father Ben has jumped up, and, now back in his normal skin tight white t-shirt, leads Father Joe and the rest of the congregation in a conga line between the rows of desks. It’s at this point that he commands Georgie and I to our feet and brings us into the dance.
Seizing the moment, Tio, a flamboyant member of the student body resplendent in his shiny Armani suit, wastes no time in grabbing the microphone to declare a dance competition between the students of Yoni and Fatima campuses. The suggestion is approved with acclaim and the rounds begin. Whilst we watch and join the cheers, Moses is quietly scheming and before we know it, an interlude before judging is announced wherein it is expected that all the white ex-pats will dance.
It’s at this point that Mercy reminds us that, despite the Mancunian twang to her accent, she is originally from Kenya, and with that she rapidly vanishes.
And so there we are – Georgie and I, Johnny and Jess the masters students fresh off the plane, Eleanora from Italy, Shadra from India and Sister Eleanora, the American missionary all of 65 years old, surrounded by a tight ring of students, lecturers and priests, all pressing in with their mobile phones out videotaping and photographing us, Moses creased with hilarity, whilst we do our best to keep up with the beat.
It was not, I confess, the religious experience I had imagined.
And so by the time we got back to Mercy’s cosy bungalow we felt we had really earned the cool, fresh, milky palm wine she glugged out from the 5 litre jug.
Now that’s the kind of spirit that will really move you.